Thunder and lightning flashed across the night sky as Liz Goetzl and a team of eco-volunteers began the long walk home. In their possession was precious cargo. The team, led by marine conservation biologist Christine Figgener, had saved one-hundred Costa Rican sea turtle eggs from potential poachers.
Shrouded in the cover of night, the team intended to collect the eggs, and bring them back to their hatchery where they could be protected and monitored. On their return, the team was caught in a downpour. After carrying the endangered sea turtle eggs back to the safety of the hatchery, Liz felt a strong sense of resolve.
“It was raining so hard you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, but it also made me realize I wanted to work in this field no matter what the conditions,” Goetzl said.
Fulfilling a lifelong dream to study marine science and animal welfare, Liz Goetzl earned her Master’s in Marine Mammal Science from University of Miami Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Over the past few years Liz has had the opportunity to observe and collect data from leatherback sea turtles in Costa Rica, perform health assessments on manatees in Crystal River, dive with endangered hammerhead sharks in the Bahamas, and provide care for dolphins in the Florida Keys.
Liz currently works with Island Dolphin Care, a nonprofit which offers a unique form of rehabilitative dolphin therapy to children and adults with special needs. As a marine mammal veterinary technician, Liz’s days vary considerably. One day she could be performing ultrasounds and physical exams on dolphins, which includes drawing blood, analyzing samples, ordering and preparing medications, and another day she could be teaching college students and prospective veterinary technicians about marine mammal medicine in a hands on environment.
“I’m drawn to marine mammals specifically because they share so many of the same characteristics as us, yet they spend the majority of their life in the ocean,” Goetzl said. “I just find them absolutely fascinating and charismatic. They provide us with so much information regarding the health of our oceans, and I feel an innate desire to help them in some capacity.”
Dolphins are so similar to humans that in 2013, Island Dolphin Care’s bottlenose dolphin resident Sarah, received the first ever airway expansion operation performed on a dolphin. At 29, Sarah’s breathing was as labored as a human with a severe case of emphysema. Tests revealed that one of Sarah’s two airways had closed off nearly eighty percent. Using a surgical technique commonly used on humans, the surgeons and veterinarians attending to Sarah were able to return her breathing to normal.
“I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have a favorite dolphin but Sarah is definitely one of them! I absolutely love working with her and do my best to keep her healthy,” Goetzl said. “They all have individual personalities, and there’s something about her that I’ve always connected with.”
Working with both the dolphins and patients who come to Island Dolphin Care, Liz highlighted the dolphin’s innate ability to adapt to each child or adult who seeks therapy.
“There’s definitely a bond between the dolphins and the people who visit. The dolphins have a strong bond with the animal care team, but I also get the sense that they understand the clients that come for therapy,” Goetzl said. “They seem to adjust their level of activity depending on the needs of the client and that’s really special to witness. The clients just love the dolphins too. A few days into their therapy week, the kids have the biggest smiles on their faces and can’t wait to get back in the water with their favorite dolphin.”
Over the course of Liz’s career, she has been inspired by several female ocean heroes. None more than Christine Figgener. Figgener became a viral voice for the fight against plastic when a video appeared of her dislodging a twelve centimeter plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nasal cavity.
In the video the turtle is fighting to breathe, continuously sneezing and writhing beneath the hands of the researchers as they try to remove the blockage. At first the team has no idea what the foreign material is made of. Continuing to try to pry the object from the turtle’s nasal cavity, the turtle’s nose begins to bleed. Finally dislodging the object with one swift and merciful tug, the researchers are shocked to discover a plastic straw.
“That video sparked a whole movement to eliminate ocean plastic, and Chris has been on the forefront of the plastic fight ever since. She was one of the first people to enlighten me about the state of our oceans, and why we should be protecting them,” said Goetzl. “Working with her in Costa Rica, really solidified my desire to work in marine conservation and with marine species.”
Reflecting on this year’s World Ocean’s Day theme—“Gender and the Ocean”—Liz referenced ocean conservation trailblazers Dr. Sylvia Earle and Eugenie Clark.
“Legends like Sylvia Earle and Eugenie Clark have inspired so many current and future ocean conservationists. I think future generations can utilize avenues that didn’t exist for previous generations (like social media and outreach) to influence policies and public desire to help the oceans,” Goetzl said. “However women are still underrepresented in the field. I hope we continue moving towards equal gender representation in the sciences and in research. There are so many amazing female role models currently in marine science, and I hope this next generation is influenced by them enough to want to pursue a similar path.”